By Edward Flentje
Reporters from Reuters, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal descended on Kansas in the last few weeks to cover a political contest they view to be of national significance, that is, a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party in the reddest of red states.
Never in state history has a sitting Kansas governor led a public campaign to oust legislators of his own party. In doing so, Gov. Sam Brownback is making the Republican primary on Aug. 7 a referendum on his governorship.
Brownback is asking Republican primary voters in a number of legislative races across the state to side with a slate of candidates composed by him and his allies against incumbent legislators. These targeted legislators view themselves as “traditional” Republicans in the lineage of Kansas icons such as Alf Landon, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole, and former Republican governors; and they believe government has a more affirmative role in assuring a high quality of life for Kansans.
An understanding of what is at stake in the election requires a look at those who have energized Brownback’s rise to power and what they have in store for Kansas.
On social issues, Brownback has allied himself with Kansans for Life and its supporters for most of his political career and championed their issues. He has dedicated himself to “renewing the culture” through legal action, for example, by removing constitutional protections for access to abortion, banning same-sex marriage, curtailing federal courts from ruling on official expressions of religious beliefs, and teaching the evolution controversy in public schools. As governor, he pledges to sign any legislation that will restrict a woman’s access to abortion, including measures of questionable constitutionality.
On economic issues, Brownback is aligned with Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries in Wichita and their agenda of cutting taxes and shrinking government, advocated for them by American for Prosperity, which they initiated in 2004. The Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce more recently fell in line with the AFP agenda and committed to eliminating the state income tax, which, in turn, Brownback has advocated.
This alliance — Kansans for Life, the Kochs, AFP, the Wichita and Kansas Chambers — has emboldened Brownback to come out of the shadows and lead the purge of Republican legislators who may exercise independent judgment on alliance issues.
The alliance wants Republican primary voters to elect legislators who will march in lockstep with Brownback in:
•Eliminating state income taxes and seeking higher sales and property taxes to address state obligations, consequently shifting the state tax burden to lower-income residents.
•Restraining state spending on public schools and shifting school funding to property taxes at the local level.
•Cutting funding for the arts and public broadcasting.
•Shifting the funding of state universities to students and their families through higher tuition and fees.
•Challenging judicial independence and enacting measures that make state judges more susceptible to outside political influence.
•Placing out-of-state, for-profit insurance companies in charge of managing aid to elderly, disabled and vulnerable residents.
•Spending more time finding ways to limit a woman’s access to abortion and targeting with legal action any group that supports such access.
•Punishing party members who dare to cooperate with Democrats on legislation.
The Republican Party’s course on these issues will be determined by Republicans, along with Independents, who vote in the Republican primary. Surveys show Brownback’s approval ratings to be low, most recently in the mid-30s among all registered voters with disapproval near 50 percent. His approval among Independent voters is even less favorable. Independent voters — who number 500,000 in the state — have the potential to swing this referendum against Brownback and his allies.
Advance voting has begun, and the fate of the Republican Party in Kansas now rests with those who show up and vote in the Republican primary.
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.